In 1938, seventeen-year-old Beatrice, an Irish Protestant lace maker, finds herself at the center of a fairy tale when she is whisked away from her dreary life to join the Berlin household of Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg. Art collectors, and friends to the most fascinating men and women in Europe, the Metzenburgs introduce Beatrice to a world in which she finds more to desire than she ever imagined.
But Germany has launched its campaign of aggression across Europe, and, before long, the conflict reaches the Metzenburgs’ threshold. Retreating with Beatrice to their country estate, Felix and Dorothea do their best to preserve the traditions of the old world. But the realities of hunger and illness, as well as the even graver threats of Nazi terror, the deportation and murder of Jews, and the hordes of refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army begin to threaten their existence. When the Metzenburgs are forced to join a growing population of men and women in hiding, Beatrice, increasingly attached to the family and its unlikely wartime community, bears heartrending witness to the atrocities of the age and to the human capacity for strength in the face of irrevocable loss.
In searing physical and emotional detail, The Life of Objects illuminates Beatrice’s journey from childhood to womanhood, from naïveté to wisdom, as a continent collapses into darkness around her. It is Susanna Moore’s most powerful and haunting novel yet.
Many years ago, I heard Susanna Moore read from her terrifying novel In the Cut. I was riveted by her voice as slowly, steadily, and with unflinching surety, she read aloud the snuffing of a character’s life. As she neared the end, the entire bookstore forgot to breathe. Moore, performing a high wire act if ever there was one, led us coolly but with great sympathy into a world of darkness.
She was, that night, our Beatrice into Hell, and her new novel, The Life of Objects, offers another Beatrice leading us into the specific and largely untold story of the hell endured by the civilian German population caught in World War II. You may think you’ve read all there is to read about this war, but you will not have read anything like this.
“My name is Beatrice Adelaide Palmer,” the novel begins. “I was born in 1921 in Ballycarra, County Mayo, the only child of Elizabeth Givens and Morris Palmer of Palmerston.” Like Jane Eyre, or the heroines of Dickens or Trollope (whom this Beatrice reads avidly), Beatrice Palmer yearns past the borders of her life, into a wider world than her Irish village. And when a beautiful Countess notices Beatrice’s lace handiwork at a ball, and proposes to whisk her away to Berlin to visit her friends the Metzenburgs, possessed of a great house and “the best manners in Europe,” it seems this Beatrice has been touched by fortune. The year is 1938.
When the Countess and Beatrice arrive in Berlin, they discover that the Metzenburgs are in flight to their estate in the country, and though Beatrice is free to return to Ireland, she chooses to join the household as a lacemaker. She stays with them through the war’s beginnings, its long years, and its destructive end—when the Russian Army, murderous, vengeful, and random in its cruel attention, sweeps through the countryside.
Like A Woman in Berlin, this novel describes the horror of being caught in the web of indifferent historical forces. But what is new here, and the source of its power, is the ignorance and simplicity of its young narrator. Beatrice’s unsentimental, precise account of what happens in the last days of the war renders the horrible even more unfathomable. We know with the hindsight of history what it means when a beloved schoolteacher has vanished, or when an American soldier appears in the woods. But in Beatrice’s telling, she does not. And so the war begins to seem like something out of one of Grimm’s horrors. With the force of a folktale, The Life of Objects got me in its grip and has not let me go.